But can you really expect that God will reveal God’s will for you by sending you tangible signs? Whether or not that may be, often young men and women are hoping that God will show them an obvious sign that will confirm where God is leading them. The simple truth is that you cannot really calculate the exact “sign” God should send nor expect God to answer “on cue.”
Nonetheless our faith assures us that God is always communicating God’s will to us. God’s message is consistent, sure, and irrefutable. The Letter to the Ephesians summarizes God’s intentions for us: “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan to be decreed in Christ in the fullness of time: to bring all things into one in him, in the heavens and on the earth” (1:9-10).
That’s the plan! And every “sign” that comes from God simply reminds us that ultimately our vocation will be a means to a lasting union with God. So that we are not alone on this journey, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us on the way. In fact the Holy Spirit teaches us how to read the “signs” that point us in the right direction. Here are five of the “signposts” I have noticed on the discernment journey.
1. A peace like no other
Saint Ignatius of Loyola teaches in his Spiritual Exercises that when your own will is aligned with God’s will, you shall know great consolation. God’s will is completely directed toward allowing you to know God and being able to love God in return. Thus, Ignatius writes, “Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me” (no. 23).
God would not call you to consecrated religious life and then not somehow reveal that vocation. Rather than some sort of external sign, the Ignatian tradition says that a deep inner peace is the truest one. Over and over I have seen young women feeling a great sense of unrest in their discernment process, but when they finally surrender and say “yes” to what their heart tells them is God’s plan, they experience a profound peace. The pivotal moment comes when discerners recognize that God is not calling them to be anyone other than their best selves. One woman described this sense to me when she said, “I feel like I just came home to myself.” A peace like no other or, as Jesus says, “a peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27), is the first “sign” that you have found God’s will.
2. Your deepest desire
The second sign is also integral to the Ignatian spiritual tradition: your own deepest desires do in fact reflect God’s deepest desires for you. A young woman tearfully once said to me: “I so hope God is calling me to religious life! I want nothing more than to give my life completely to Him!” “So why are you still so conflicted?” I asked. “Because,” she sighed, “what if that’s not where God is calling me?” Ignatius assures us that God has placed God’s deepest desires for us within our own hearts. Ask yourself: “Would I be disappointed if God were not calling me to religious life?”
In order to know what you really desire, moreover, you have to get beyond all the cultural messages that tell you what “should” make you happy. You might need to get beyond your family’s expectations of who you “could” be. Through silence and prayer, you will gradually come to hear that quiet voice within and, with God’s grace, have the courage to trust that these deep inner longings are really from God.
Often in the beginning men and women called to religious life resist God’s promptings. Even Saint Peter cried, “Leave me Lord! I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Yet, if we’re really honest with ourselves, there is a subtle attraction to this life. We are drawn to consecrating ourselves to Christ, to praying in common, living in a loving community, and witnessing to the gospel in a radical way. Through good spiritual direction, prayer, and silence, you can come to name your deepest desire that just might be to leave all behind and answer Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” (Luke 5:27).
3. With God all things are possible
Another “sign” that God might be calling someone to religious life is that gradually the impossible becomes possible. If God is calling you, then would God not give you whatever graces and gifts are needed for that to happen? Nonetheless that does not mean the road is always perfectly smooth. Sometimes there are obstacles—some of our own making and some from outside of us.
When Mary gave her “yes” to God at the Annunciation, there were clearly some obstacles to overcome: what to tell Joseph; how the community would respond; the need to register for the census. Yet to show Mary that “nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37), the angel told her that even her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a child in her old age.
Repeatedly I have marvelled as God has seemingly “moved mountains” in the lives of those whom God calls. One young woman did not have the financial means to pay for her own health insurance during the postulancy period of her entering my community, but on her last day of work she was amazed when her former employer announced that her parting gift would be a year of health-insurance coverage!
Another young woman struggled interiorly with accepting that she would never bear her own children. Acknowledging this painful inner conflict before God while at Eucharistic adoration, she suddenly realized that though she would not bear children of her own she would be called to “mother” many of God’s children. The amazing gift was that this insight brought great joy and suddenly she was ready to embrace her vocation. Once again the impossible became possible.
4. Others can see it
Another signpost along the way is when other people see God’s grace in your life and affirm that indeed you would make a wonderful religious sister, brother, or priest. Often candidates distrust their own worthiness. Though we know in our hearts that God calls us in our human weakness, sometimes we rationalize the many reasons why we should not be called. We need to leave this choice to Christ and recall that Jesus said that “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16).
One young woman who had just begun the application process to enter my community, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ran into a friend from high school. When her friend asked her what she would be doing once she graduated from college, she replied, “I am applying to enter as an Apostle [of the Sacred Heart of Jesus]!” Her friend immediately responded, “Of course! You have the Apostle charism!”—my community’s spirit. While not seeking a direct sign, this young candidate reflected that she truly felt God was speaking to her in this moment. Oftentimes when God is calling someone to religious life, God confirms this call through other people.
5. Joy: the irrefutable sign
The Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” The surest signpost of all is a tangible joy that bubbles up and overflows in all aspects of life. As young men and women open themselves to God’s will and say their own “fiat”—Mary’s “let it be done” to the angel Gabriel—a palpable joy seems to emanate.
Jesus’ own prayer for his disciples was that his “joy might be in them and that joy might be full!” (John 15:11). God wants nothing less than fullness of joy for you; therefore the clearest sign of all is a deep sense of joy that cannot be contained. One young woman recently wrote to me: “Even my co-workers notice that I smile every time I talk about the Apostles!” Joy is clearly the most vivid of God’s signs!
What does it all mean?
As I was working on this article while on a plane heading to my next discernment retreat, I gazed out the window and asked myself again, “Does God really send signs?” I nearly laughed aloud as I beheld a rainbow stretched across the clouds. “Just as in the days of Noah,” I pondered, “God continues to send us signs.” I now realize that all of God’s signs continue to point to the same reality: “I am with you! I will never leave you!”
God is constantly communicating God’s will to us every day of our lives: “to bring all things into one in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). You can be sure that God’s plan is unfolding as you experience an unshakeable peace; you discover and trust your deepest desires; the impossible suddenly becomes possible; others affirm God’s grace in you; and finally an unmistakable joy gives that tell-tale sign: God is with you.
By Sister Colleen Therese Smith, A.S.C.J.